Remembering Our Own: the UW Health Med Flight Crash of May 10, 2008

14 years after the fatal Med Flight crash that claimed the lives of pilot Steve Lipperer, physician Dr. Darren Bean, and nurse Mark Coyne, the Department of Emergency Medicine reflects on the tragedy, with their loss felt both at UW Hospitals and Clinics as well as in the community they served. The skills and dedication they offered live on with the UW Health Med Flight crews today.

In 2019, the Wisconsin State Journal published an article exploring how improvements to equipment, technology, and national standards over the last decade make flying with UW Health Med Flight safer today.

“Before UW Health Med Flight helicopters take off, the pilot inputs risk data — cloud level, amount of moonlight, the crew’s years of experience, and more — into an app, and a control center near Denver decides whether to approve the flight.

Med Flight’s three helicopters are equipped with night vision goggles, and have terrain awareness and warning systems. Pilots are certified to fly by instruments in poor weather, and they receive simulation training. On flights with no patient aboard, a doctor or nurse joins the pilot up front.

None of those things were in place on May 10, 2008, when a Med Flight helicopter crashed into a ridge at night near La Crosse, killing its crew of three.

The upgrades, especially the night vision goggles, likely would prevent such a crash today, said Dr. Ryan Wubben, Med Flight physician. If the pilot 10 years ago had access to the goggles, “they would have been able to see a farm field versus ridge versus woods.”

Nationally, the number of fatal medical helicopter crashes has decreased since 2008. That toll prompted the National Transportation Safety Board to hold hearings the next year and the Federal Aviation Administration to issue new rules five years later.